ATLANTA (CN) — A legislative effort to bolster Georgia’s Hidden Predator Act by granting additional protections to victims of childhood sexual assault is under fire by Atlanta’s Catholic Archdiocese and the Boy Scouts of America.
The organizations object to the inclusion of language in the bill allowing victims to sue “entities,” including churches, private schools and youth organizations. Under Georgia’s current laws, organizations are able to escape legal liability for protecting the alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse.
The bill could expose organizations to increased financial liability as well.
House Bill 605 would extend the statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual assault, allowing adults up to the age of 38 to sue alleged perpetrators and their employers for sexual abuse. Currently, the Hidden Predator Act only offers protections to adults up to the age of 23.
The bill makes allowances for certain situations in which victims of any age could sue alleged perpetrators and the organizations accused of covering up their crimes.
HB 605 passed the Georgia House of Representatives after a 170-0 vote in February, but lobbying efforts from the Boy Scouts and the archdiocese now threaten to kill the legislation before it moves out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and onto the floor of the chamber.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jason Spencer, told Courthouse News that he will fight to keep the bill alive.
“I will continue to fight for this issue. I know the process can look very discouraging to the victims of child sexual abuse. I know that fighting for this bill sort of re-victimizes them, I know it becomes very painful,” he said.
“But this issue is not going to go away,” he continued. “Society and the way we view childhood sexual abuse is changing. Society’s will will eventually be done.”
In a statement on behalf of the archdiocese, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory called the bill “extraordinarily unfair” and claimed that it could “drastically damage our ability to carry out the mission of our Catholic Church.”
“HB 605 does not protect anyone,” the statement says. “Rather, innocent people and the organizations to which they belong will be radically impacted based on allegations against individuals who may no longer even be alive and cannot speak for themselves.”
Gregory says the church has always supported lawsuits and criminal prosecution against “individual abuser[s] of children, no matter how long ago the abuse is alleged to have occurred.”
Gregory is the former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. During his tenure as president, he handled the U.S. Catholic Church’s response to the clergy pedophilia scandal in the early 2000s.
According to Rep. Spencer, the Archbishop’s statements are “simply not accurate.”
Spencer told Courthouse News that he’s unsurprised by the church’s opposition to the bill.
In February, Spencer publicly acknowledged that the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the insurance industry all lobbied against HB 605 while it was still in the House.
Earlier this month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Perry McGuire, a lobbyist for the Catholic Church, proposed amendments to the bill in an email to Sen. Jesse Stone, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The proposed amendments would remove the bill’s extension of the statute of limitations and make it more difficult for victims to sue organizations.
In February, the Boy Scouts of America sent a statement to Atlanta’s 11Alive News expressing their opposition to the bill.
“We strongly support certain parts of HB 605… We do not support it in its current form, however, because it does not strengthen efforts that experts agree can help keep children safe and includes provisions that would hinder the ability of youth-serving organizations to protect the children they serve,” the statement said.
Edward Lindsey, a lobbyist for the Boy Scouts of America, reportedly spoke in front of the state Senate Judiciary committee earlier this month. “Time corrodes evidence. You wait 20, 30, 40 years before you bring a suit, you make it very difficult on a defendant to defend himself,” he said.
The Boy Scouts were recently forced to defend themselves in a Georgia lawsuit that alleged a scoutmaster abused boys for decades while the organization engaged in a conspiratorial cover-up.
A representative for the Boy Scouts of America did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
HB 605 is scheduled for committee discussion today, one week before the current legislative session is scheduled to end on March 29.